Sunday, September 8, 2013

For Evelyn Waugh, redemption is found in the wasteland, not in society.

Why is that? In the novel, Brideshead Revisted (the most Catholic of novels), why is society not seen as the means of salvation except in the abstractness of society as found in the Mass?

When I look at the path of salvation of each character what stands out is that they are all by means of denial of the natural bonds of social life.

Sebastian, the primary catholic rejects the natural bonds of friends and family in favor of living in the desert as servant to the detestable Kurt, with Sebastian's day of redemption predicted by Cordelia of being found dying outside the Monastary. The social context is a deathbed coming into society after spending a lifetime rejecting it living a life in the wasteland.

Julia, the second primary catholic rejects the social bond with Charles, true, she is married to another, but the bond she rejects is a natural one albeit illicit. She likewise does not go back to her husband as is her duty, and back to a future family of with children, but instead chooses a life in the wilderness of living out a life without the natural affections of husband and children.

Cordelia, whose insights into the Faith guide us is destined to live the life of a spinster. A life of unfulfilled potency. She describes herself as like Sebastian, "those who don't fit into this world or the monastic rule." She like Sebastian is flawed and by that flaw without a natural society.

The Father rejects family during his life, coming to the family not unlike Sebasitian at the end. But even at death's door, disinherits his son named as heir in the book in favor of his daughter, and why? Because he chose a quiet Catholic existence as opposed to living in rejection of the quiet natural bonds.

The Mother isn't maternal. She loves her children and attempts to guide them, but appears incapable of doing it via simple love as proper to natural social life. The maternal character is the stranger, nanny.

And then there is Charles, who converts in the epilogue. His conversion is at Brideshead, but the context is a Mass in the wilderness.

Why is salvation for the characters always tied to denial of the natural bonds of social life.

In contrast to the novel, my wife tells our children each lent the sacrifice they each need to make is doing kind acts to their sidblings. What is looked for is proper formation into society. Sacrifice for others in the family forms habits that properly join two of the formal principles of society, solidarity and subsidiarity.

Where are solidarity and duty in Brideshead Revisited? What we find is fallen nature and continuous social warfare without any real joy in being with family. As opposed to finding joy among those with whom they have a natural affinity, the joy they seek, and find, is among strangers such as the atheist Charles Ryder.

Please note, this post is not finished, read at your own risk.

For the Catholic, the wilderness signifies mortification for the same reason that banishment is the most severe of penalties because it's separation from what is most dear and natural to us. And while there cannot be redemption without mortification, mortification in the wilderness was never in the past seen as the permanent condition of man. Even the hermits in the wilderness came together at times.

It may be amusing to read Charles Ryder's shock and bigoted disdain at little black Cordelias, but what stands out is that Cordelia's charity outside the family is for strangers across the sea in the wilderness, not amongst her own down the street at the local orphanage.

The modernist finds God in the wilderness because the bonds binding men are unnatural constructs, in contrast, Catholics find their perfection within natural society that is proper to them.

As St. Thomas so nicely puts it when explaining the sacraments, each sacrament can be understood as signifying an essential aspect of the natural life. In contrast, Waugh intentionally isolates each Catholic character, isolating each one separated from natural duties typical to the natural life.

Waugh has a way in his stories of reducing all his Catholic characters to vagabonds in a wasteland with a tether holding them attached to the reality of life, sanity and the Faith. Whether that tether be the twitched string or the found Latin Mass in the future, or similar. And if untethered in the wasteland its an obvious hell of reading Dickens for eternity.

Brideshead Revisited is perhaps the best example in literature of showing a culturally Catholic understanding of the world. Waugh's subtlety is obvious, he tells us outright the lessons he intends us to learn so we don't miss them. Not unlike a movie director who answered when asked if subtlety in movies was good, "yes subtlety is good, as long as it's obvious." As an architect, it's a consideration I well appreciate, if I want an aspect of my design to be noticed, it better be obvious, otherwise it'll be overlooked except by the most observant.

In this regard, Waugh tells us outright what he wants us to notice:
As Sebastian observes to the agnostic Charles Ryder: “Everything [Catholics] think is important is different from other people.”
Charles: “They seem just like everyone else.”
Sebastian:“That’s exactly what they’re not.”

We're intended to take note of the contrast between the modern world and the Catholic world, but yet when Charles converts to the Faith in the epilogue, Brideshead is being used unnaturally as a temporary camp. Like Napoleon who commandeered churches for use as horse barns, Brideshead has been commandeered to stable men who have no natural attachment to the land they camp on. Even when on familiar land, Charles' conversion is when the land he knows is made foreign and used unnaturally.

The modernist disposition to reject one's own in preference for the stranger is unnaturally grafted into Catholic redemption by rejection of one's own.

Bridehead Revisted is Catholic Life in contrast to the modern world, so why is it that Waugh reduces every Catholic to a vagabond? Julia's bargain that if she gives up the one thing she truly wants then God will not despair may be true, but what are we to make of Charles Ryder's sacrifice of his own son?

In the epilogue Charles Ryder describes his own desolation in the wasteland prior to his conversion at the celebration of the Mass.

"Maybe that's one of the pleasures of building. Like having a son. Wondering how he'll grow up. I don't know. I've never built anything. And I've forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I'm homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless."

A strange passage to be sure, why would a father describe himself as childless?

For Sebastian perhaps the wasteland is "not such a bad way of getting through one's life,". But Charles has a son, he's not 'childless', he has a duty that finally cannot be forfeited.

"No one is truly holy without suffering". But the suffering Charles undergoes prior to his conversion is an unnatural self imposed suffering.

Jacob's willingness to lead Isaac out into the wilderness and sacrifice him is a testament to his Faith that "God will provide". But Charles in turn makes a poor parallel because he sacrificed his own son to the pleasure of Julia's flesh, and when redemption comes in Julia's house he doesn't mortify his own flesh, but instead denies his own flesh and blood son declaring himself childless.

Waugh is wonderful at describing the soul of Catholic culture, and likewise tells us how each Catholic character will be redeemed, but he likewise leaves each Catholic character with a wrecked life, or in potency as with Cordelia. With the exception of Bridey who chooses a peaceful family life and is summarily shunned and disinherited for his choice.

Julia's description of Rex and in turn of modern society is simple and devastating
“He wasn't a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.”

But Waugh likewise leaves his Catholics incomplete by making them modern while telling us that "that is exactly what they are not".

More to come as I think about it.

1 comment: